IN LATE MAY, HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of apartment residents returned home to find an unusual letter from their management companies. Instead of an update on recycling rules or a notification about a utility rate increase, renters were warned to be on the lookout for a terrorist who might be living down the hall.
The notices were spurred by a May 16 FBI warning that a “non-specific” terrorist threat existed for apartment buildings. Perhaps the most visible response to the warning so far was a letter many companies distributed to residents urging them to be alert for “suspicious activity or odd behavior,” and to call their local FBI bureau if they see something that should be investigated.
The letters are a sign of the post-9/11 times for operators of multifamily projects. Since the terrorist attacks in September, owners have invested in new security measures, including access control and electronic surveillance systems. And, thanks to the FBI, now they have enlisted residents in the effort to prevent attack. United Dominion Realty Trust, a Richmond, Va.-based apartment owner and manager, was one of many companies that delivered a letter to residents based on a template supplied by the National Multi Housing Council to residents.
“We view it as trying to educate our residents on what are some of the things to be suspicious about,” explains Thomas W. Toomey, CEO of United Dominion.
Meanwhile, The Lane Co. of Atlanta also sent out the NMHC letter to the 30,000 units it manages, says Michelle Toups, director of special projects.
Some residents are taking the warning to heart. Martie Dickman, national policy coordinator for Dallas-based Lincoln Property Co., says two renters at a Lincoln complex in McLean, Va., the CIA's hometown, asked management to conduct apartment searches. Lincoln is considering the step, she says. A number of other companies are looking into implementing unit searches as well. The Lane Co.'s Toups says her company has decided that such searches are unnecessary because service staff enter apartments almost every month.
In an effort to help owners address the threat of terrorism, industry leaders met this summer with national and local law-enforcement officials to discuss methods of heading off terrorism. NMHC also hosted a 300-person conference call in which apartment industry, FBI and Department of Housing and Urban Development members participated. Local police departments in some cities issued their own warnings to apartment communities or held seminars on how to spot terrorist threats. The Los Angeles Police Department released a list of guidelines, and the New York Police Department held a seminar for landlords.
Beefing Up Screening Procedures
There are lots of gadgets and gizmos, but the industry's first line of defense remains screening prospective tenants carefully. Now, screening is being reinforced at many apartment communities to address the heightened security concerns.
Carrolton, Texas-based RealPage offers a Web-based screening service priced at a flat rate of $7.80 per report, which covers such details as credit histories and eviction records. A contract that works out to an additional $4.80 per report covers a criminal search. The criminal search includes records for only about 65% of the population because privacy laws in some major states — including California, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — make electronic searching of criminal records difficult, according to David Carner, vice president for market development and applicant screening at RealPage. In those states, names of criminals are released as public information, but not their dates of birth.
Denver-based SafeRent offers a similar online service, and the system also rates the desirability of a tenant based on credit histories and other risk factors. SafeRent's standard screening is $14.95 per search. Criminal-search prices vary according to state, county and the number of searches.
The applications of foreign applicants, particularly students, are getting a closer look. Carner says apartment managers are carefully examining visa documents to make sure a tenant's legal term of residency doesn't expire during the length of a lease.
To guard against potential discrimination against foreigners, executives of the Seattle-based Pinnacle Realty Corp. have warned managers to make sure rental agents continue to follow U.S. Fair Housing Act guidelines in renting apartments. “While we want to keep our communities as safe as possible, we do not want to veer from the fair and nondiscriminatory practices we have always followed,” says Cara McDonald, marketing manager for Pinnacle.
In addition to the criminal searches Lincoln Property previously conducted, the company now is screening against an FBI “Most Wanted” list as well, according to Dickman.
Interest in criminal-records screening increased after Sept. 11, says Mike Oldham, COO of SafeRent. More managers have decided to look into the service since the FBI's warning. Since that notice, “a lot of managers have called us and said, ‘We're ready to sign up for this,’” he says.
Denver-based AIMCO, the largest apartment-management company in the U.S., plans to add more electronic screening to its application process. The company has reached an agreement with its vendors to expand its applicant-screening capabilities.
RealPage executives also say the number of inquiries into the company's Web-based screening service has increased dramatically. “It really has been incredible, I don't know if we've ever seen anything quite like it,” Carner says.
Since the FBI announcement, both RealPage and SafeRent have enhanced their basic applicant screening services to include more information about suspected terrorists and other individuals on the FBI's “Most Wanted” list. Executives at both companies say they are not charging extra for the service.
Video cameras are another means of improving security. New York-based Unitone Communications Systems, a video intercom manufacturer, reports that sales of video intercoms are up 30% since the FBI warning was issued in May.
The company's video admittance systems boost security by allowing residents to see would-be guests before they buzz them in. Lucien Bohbot, president of Unitone, believes that one reason apartment managers are interested in video cameras — which are priced from $500 to $800 per unit — is that they see security as a way to enhance the appeal of their apartment complexes.
“Until now, managers were just thinking about the marble top in the kitchen or the bathroom amenities, but now there is an emphasis on security,” he says.
Security expert Chris E. McGoey, who is president of Los Angeles-based McGoey Security Consulting, notes that using basic screening services and ordinary precautions significantly reduces the chance of a terrorist ever becoming a tenant in an apartment complex. “Simply using the measures that everyone already knows about will reasonably screen out most potential terrorists and prevent your property from ending up on the six o'clock news,” he says.
Bennett Voyles is a New York-based writer.
HOMELAND SECURITY ADVISORY SYSTEM
Severe Risk of Terrorist Attacks
High risk of terrorist attacks
Significant risk of terrorist attacks
General risk of terrorist attacks
Low risk of terrorist attacks
In March, the White House created the Homeland Security Advisory System to notify the public about the threat of terrorism. The current rating — yellow — indicates the country is at an elevated risk.
Following an FBI warning in late May that advised apartment managers to be on the lookout for possible terrorist activity, the National Multi Housing Council published a series of recommendations. Among them:
Perform thorough move-in and move-out inspections and regularly check vacant units.
- Ask employees to be on the lookout for prohibited materials on the premises, including gunpowder, PVC or metal piping and dismantled kitchen timers.
- Expand daily property-wide inspections to include building perimeters and exteriors.
- Keep a watch on contractors, and require background checks for prior criminal history.
- Advise all employees, residents and contractors to be vigilant and aware of suspicious behavior and to report all suspicious activity to property management and the FBI. For example, be watchful of student residents who don't appear to leave the property to attend classes.
- Require original documents to prove identity when accepting new residents.
- Note individuals who rent multiple apartments at the same time.
- Look out for unattended or unauthorized vehicles in parking lots.
- Keep non-public areas, including storage and equipment rooms, off limits to non-employees.